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Get Flexible, baby!

Cognitive Flexibility is all the rage, very plainly put it is the ability to shift attention between strategies, tasks or thoughts that occupy mind space. It is also described as the ability to refocus your attention  to relevant stimuli (Diamond, 2006) and also simultaneously consider conflicting representations of information in order to execute goal directed behavior (Jacques & Zelazo, 2005).

More famously, Albert Einstein once said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”. The truth is, it’s a rather tricky skill to acquire, an even harder one to put into practice and unfortunately one that cannot be taught in theory but only by repeated practice. 

So why do our kids need this complex skill, is it not enough that they follow instructions, read and write? How much are we going to go on about skills that our kids need to acquire? 

Research shows that greater cognitive flexibility helps kids learn in all environments. Every academic skill be it math or science or language requires a certain amount of cognitive flexibility for the child to grasp the concept and implement it effectively. ADL skills require cognitive flexibility, navigating the complex social groups require cognitive flexibility. Understanding the complexities of language i.e. The statement “I bought 10 bananas in a math problem and ate 2, how many do I have left” would require the child to use cognitive flexibility in order to differentiate that the “I” in the math problem does not refer to him and in no way, requires association/thoughts of stress or confusion about eating the bananas but that he needs to simply solve the numbers presented!

Rules of grammar require cognitive flexibility. Problem solving requires cognitive flexibility. As kids one of the greatest lessons we learnt was the ability to follow made up rules in a game that would frequently change based on the setting and participants. Even rhymes change based on regional location, key words in rhymes change to suit the local preferences. Book titles are sometimes changed based on local language. I remember the first book in the Harry Potter series was titled the Sorcerer’s stone in the United States and no such title existed in Britain where they spoke about the Philosopher’s stone. The ability to accept the different title for a die-hard potterfan? Cognitive flexibility, Yo!

This wonderful skill showcases itself when we see kids smoothly transitioning through life changes, through small changes in their days, through changes in their lessons and their environments and even changes in people around them. 

I’m sure you are thinking, “all this sounds great, but does my child really need this skill? Do I really have to focus on another thing that he has got to master?”

Ideally, yes. Being cognitively flexible helps him grow into an adult who can accept changes and not get overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety that accompanies any change. Most people with an anxiety disorder or chronic worry and elevated levels of stress may have lower levels of cognitive flexibility. They might be the most intelligent people in the room, they might be highly educated, very functional but burdened with stress and worry, simply because they are not flexible enough both in action and in their thoughts!

Surface level Flexibility!

In interviews in the corporate world, many-a-times the interviewer asks the interviewee questions to assess his flexibility, evaluating his capability to adapt to real life crises and change. This is a great surface level task but often misses out the inner flexibility, the thoughts and feelings the individual experiences that can overwhelm him in the process of adapting to change. You might find a manager who does a stellar job of navigating his team through a workplace crisis, all this while internalizing the stress, worry and fears that eventually build up and mount into a troubled mind for him, while seemingly doing an excellent job! 

Do we want that? No thank you!

Real flexibility!

It calls for two skills – flexible thinking and set shifting! Flexible thinking is the ability to think of something in a new way. It could be about an event, an item of interest or an activity itself, it could even be a life process! Think about the life path you had charted in your head for your child, the school he would go to, the kind of classes he would attend etc. and then bam. You received a diagnosis of a developmental disorder. Your life path and his, in the process change. The ability to accept and transition to this change? Being able to change how you thought something would pan out and accept that, calls for flexible thinking! And what is set shifting? The ability to unlearn something. The generations old practice of hand feeding a child, not so good! Being able to expect your toddler to self-feed is unlearning an old practice! And that is effective set shifting! A change of mindset, a process of unlearning is set shifting! 

Want to see cognitive skills in action? Take a look at reading skills – surprisingly an area where cognitive flexibility is required! When kids start out with reading simple words and combinations, they need to use cognitive flexibility to sound out new letter word combinations. Learning that right and write are written differently, mean different things but sound exactly alike – cognitive flexibility! As they pick up advanced reading skills, they begin to sift out the essence of the book from the extra details. If the book is about a girl going to school, they will focus on the character and the event (going to school) while leaving out bits about the weather or descriptive statements that surround the main event! Cognitive flexibility enables them to understand what a paragraph or book was about and is an advanced stage of “Reading” a book!

Kids with weaker flexible thinking may develop anxiety disorders, emotional problems and the stress of not knowing how to adapt to changes and developing rules may lead to social rejection. They might display difficulty in understanding abstract concepts in math and languages. They may become anxious test takers, socially awkward individuals and people with great resistance to anything out of the ordinary. As adults, the rigidity pans across all thought processes and they become lovers of routine and sameness and can often struggle internally with the smallest change.

The good news? We can begin working on developing this skill now! It’s never too late!

  1. Alter well established routines in a small way once every few days. If your child gets to watch T.V. in the afternoon, switch it up and offer him T.V. at a different time but no T.V. in the afternoon! If he gets to eat ice-cream every Friday, switch the days up, Friday becomes no ice-cream day and he gets it on another day of the week instead!
  2. Engage in pretend play, teach him that it’s okay to pretend to be something, pretend a book is a hat, for toddlers – comb the table with a comb instead of their hair, these little activities teach them cognitive flexibility at an early age!
  3. If they are older kids or teenagers, play pretend scenario games with them

Teach your kids to accept new experiences, take them for a new sport or a new activity, one where they do not know the rules and have no prior experience 

One last meme before we go!

Not every situation is covered in the training manual, get your flexibility on! 

Adios, Swati & Gita 


Davidson, M. C., Amso, D., Anderson, L. C., & Diamond, A. (2006). Development of cognitive control and executive functions from 4 to 13 years: evidence from manipulations of memory, inhibition, and task switching. Neuropsychologia44(11), 2037–2078. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.02.006

Jacques, S., & Zelazo, P. D. (2005). Language and the Development of Cognitive Flexibility: Implications for Theory of Mind.In J. W. Astington & J. A. Baird (Eds.), Why language matters for theory of mind (p. 144–162). Oxford University Press.https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195159912.003.0008

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